Youth Canada

AP vs. IB: Which Should You Take and Why?

14-08-2008 by William Song

AP vs. IB: Which Should You Take and Why?

A common way to distinguish yourself as a well-qualified university applicant is to undertake a rigorous course load during your high school career. In Canada there are two such prevalent enrichment programs, namely AP, Advanced Placement, and IB, International Baccalaureate. Among top university applicants exists a perpetual predicament: Should I take AP or IB?

It seems that while AP has earned fairly good recognition in Canada, IB is still a strange exotic animal to Canadian youth, so I’ll start by introducing what IB is drawing from my personal experience.

IB was originally founded in Europe to accommodate the children of diplomats. The philosophy behind it was that the “IB World Schools” will all teach the same curriculum, regulated by one central body so that a student will attain more or less the same level of education at any IB school. Ironically enough though, it is much more difficult to transfer from one IB school to another than from one AP school to another because of a concept called Higher and Standard Level, which will be discussed shortly.

IB offers two main programs: the certificate program and the diploma program. In order to obtain an IB certificate, a candidate has to merely take at least one IB course and write an externally assessed exam at the end of the course in May. The diploma program is generally what is referred to by “IB”, and it consists of several requirements: 6 prescribed courses, a 4000 word Extended Essay, and a philosophy requirement by the name of Theory of Knowledge. IB courses are divided into 6 main categories, and in order to satisfy the diploma requirements, a candidate must take one of each. Group 1 is the analysis of literature in the candidate’s first language. Group 2 is a slight introduction into a second language. Group 3 is a social science, spanning the gamut of courses from History to Geography to Psychology to Anthropology to Economics to Business and Management. Group 4 is an experimental science such as Physics, Chemistry, or Biology. Group 5 is mathematics and computer science, and Group 6 is a visual or performing arts course. Group 6 courses are, however, optional, and a candidate may substitute any other course for the arts course. Courses may be taken at Higher Level (HL) or Standard Level (SL), indicating the difficulty of the course, but a candidate must only take 4HL’s and 2SL’s or 3HL’s and 3SL’s.

Now that we have a better understanding of what IB is, let’s move onto the similarities and differences of AP and IB. The similarity is that both are taught at first-year university level and eligible for course credits. For example, a student who took AP Calculus BC and a student who took IB Mathematics HL would both be eligible to skip Calculus I. The main difference is that AP courses are standalone courses that you choose to take, whereas IB offers a diploma with a set number of requirements. Both have their advantages. With AP, one can show his excellence in a certain target area by writing many difficult exams in one target field, whereas an IB student would emphasize a well-rounded education.

In terms of difficulty, I would say that AP is slightly more difficult, whereas the workload for IB is significantly greater. Having looked through AP Physics C and AP Calculus BC texts, I can attest to the fact that these courses cover more difficult material than the equivalents of IB Physics HL and IB Mathematics HL. However, whereas AP courses are yearlong courses, IB courses span over two years and cover a lot more material.

Assessment is slightly different in AP and IB. AP scores are solely determined by AP exams written in the month of May. IB scores are determined by both external and internal assessment, usually 80% external and 20% internal. External assessment entails exams written in May being sent out across the world to be graded by certified IB examiners. Internal assessment is assessment by the candidate’s teacher, and is heavily monitored to reduce bias. AP exams are graded on a scale of 1-5, whereas IB is graded from 1-7. It is worthy to note, however, that while up to 30% of candidates in a session may score a 5 on some AP exams, less than 10% of candidates are awarded 7’s in any IB subject.

In terms of credit at universities, the general consensus seems to be that AP and IB are treated on the same level. No one is preferred more than the other, although I can’t provide any direct quotes at this time. In the end, I believe it’s personal preference. There are ways in both to escape the difficult courses and there are ways in both to make yourself shine by taking the most ridiculous course load. I preferred IB so that I could gain some insight into the fields that I will probably never be seeing again in university and must say that I enjoyed my experience thoroughly. If you are the type that only tends to focus on one field, IB will be very difficult to manage though. An important dichotomy that you may need to note is the fact that IB is much more recognized in Europe, whereas AP has a firm grasp on the North American Education System. Therefore, if you are applying to schools like the University of Cambridge or the École Générale de Paris, you may want to consider IB over AP.

WILLIAM SONG is a grade 12 student currently enrolled in the Port Moody Secondary School IB Diploma Programme. An alumnus of Shad Valley Waterloo 2008, he joined Impact as an intern for the summer of 2008 and continues to contribute to Youth Canada.

Image courtesy of user "wohnai" at via Creative Commons License.